Posts Tagged ‘Bletchley Park’

Mechanical Thought’s immersive piece seeks to tell the story of the secret work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. We arrive at the venue, posing as a radio factory, sign the official secrets act and are taken in three groups to one of the ‘huts’ to begin our work.

Britain was struggling because the German forces were communicating using cyphers, changed daily, making timely intelligence difficult. The Bletchley team, made up of brilliant people, recruited largely from universities, most mathematicians, built upon the Polish work in breaking this enigma code (something new to me). In Hut 6, under the guidance of Keith Batey, we learn how to break the code before we do so on a real message. Visits from and to the other two huts give us a glimpse of their activity, but we’re mostly in our own. Other aspects of the story are told mostly by the characters in our hut, all of whom were actually there at the time.

We learn that because they can’t talk about their work, some are mistaken, and intimidated, for being cowards. Relationships are not allowed, to avoid any infiltration and collusion, but the intensity of the time they spend together makes them more likely, and so it proves. The visit of a man from Whitehall brings distrust, and the knowledge that they have little encouragement from civil servants, having to fight for resources even though those higher up know full well the contribution they’re making. We all end up in one cramped room to hear the result of Whitehall’s investigation and the future of our characters, including Alan Turing of course.

It’s surprising how much you learn in two hours, in an environment which, based on my visit to Bletchley Park, seems authentic. A touch too much humour and flippancy risked that for me, but the biggest issue was the one you always get with immersive theatre – participants who are disengaged or even disruptive – and I’m afraid my group had some of those, but in fairness to the company, they were not encouraged and were difficult to handle.

This was my second visit to the Colab Factory in Borough, and I would certainly recommend this; hopefully you’ll get a better group than I did.

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The life of code-breaker Alan Turing is an unlikely subject for a musical, but then again so were the Ipswich prostitute murders! Like London Road, this is more a play with music than a musical (though not sung verbatim interviews in this case). What they also share is how successful they tell their story, and in this case it also makes you reappraise a man’s life.

Starting as Turing goes to Sherborne School, we zip through school and university days and on to Bletchley Park and his huge contribution to the second world war. Moving on into his post-war research & teaching career in Manchester, you realise this is no simple code-breaker, but a scientific colossus whose theories were extraordinary prophetic. Sadly, we see him brought down by the naive confession of a private act that would today be a complete non-event. A genius cut down in his prime.

You do learn an extraordinary amount in 90 minutes, partly because the music propels and illuminates the narrative. They aren’t songs you could play out of context, but they are tuneful and very listenable with live keyboard and recorded accompaniment and some added live strings from cast members. The staging is simple but superbly effective, with projections and two on-stage racks of props enabling scenes to be created swiftly, and a giant document patchwork used to great effect.

Richard Delaney is excellent as Turing, completely plausible as schoolboy & undergraduate through twenty and thirty something. They are lucky to have someone as talented as Judith Paris to play Alan’s mother, which she does with great sensitivity. All other roles are played brilliantly by just five actors and it often seems there are many more than seven on stage.

Though I liked Hugh Whitmore’s play about Turing, with Derek Jacobi leading (27 years ago now and surely overdue for revival), I think I learnt more about his life from this show, which seemed to me to really get under the skin and capture the essence of the man, the monumental achievements, the sadness of his personal life and the waste that his premature death was.

I really do hope we haven’t seen the last of this little gem of a show. Huge congratulations to The New Diorama and it director David Byrne (responsible for the book, lyrics & direction) composer / lyricist Dominic Brennan and young theatre company PIT. There was a real bonus on the evening I went, with a man from Bletchley Park demonstrating an actual Enigma machine in the foyer!

Let’s hope it comes back so more people can see it.

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